7 things you should know about new food labels
Knowing what you’re eating sounds easy, but it hasn’t always been. Food labels in the past could be confusing. And who has time to read the fine print?
Watching your diet just got easier thanks to changes in packaged food labels. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requiring manufacturers with more than $10 million in annual sales to make food labels more accurately reflect the way Americans eat.
Beginning in January 2020, if you really want to eat a whole bag of potato chips or a whole can of soup, there’s a new dual-column label that clearly shows how many calories you’ll be adding to your diet. Printing a “per package” calorie count on certain food labels reflects the reality of how some of us eat, and many believe that giving the American consumer this quick stat is long overdue.
“New food labels will make it easier for everyone to make healthy food choices,” said Rachel Songer, RD, a registered dietitian at Cape Cod Hospital. “We’ll all be better informed and have an easier time deciding what to buy in the grocery store.”
The new labels are designed to alleviate confusion and readability problems. They incorporate some common-sense improvements based on consumer lifestyles. They also reflect the latest scientific information, including dietary items linked to chronic diseases, such as obesity and heart disease.
Songer outlined the changes that took effect this year:
- Easier to Read - It is easier to see the “serving size” and “servings per container” on labels because manufacturers must now use larger, bolder type sizes.
- Calories Up Front - The calorie count is also larger and bolder. Except for the heading, “Nutrition Facts,” the word “calories” is the largest item on every food label.
- New Serving Sizes - “One of the biggest changes is that serving sizes have been updated to reflect what people actually eat and drink today,” Songer said. “The FDA found that old labels used serving sizes that were typically smaller than realistic serving sizes for average adults. This allowed people to mistakenly think they were consuming fewer calories. For instance, the serving size for ice cream was previously ½ cup and now is 2/3 cup.
- Fat Calories Dropped - Calories from fat no longer appear on labels. “We’ve found that the amount of fat we eat isn’t as important as what kind of fats we eat,” Songer said, noting that saturated fats consumed in excess are linked to heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends we keep saturated fats to less than 13 grams per day. “While other fats are essential to our diets, we really shouldn’t be consuming any trans fats,” she said.
- Added Sugars - “Added Sugars” are now required on food labels. Previously, labels listed total sugars, which combined naturally occurring sugars and added sugars, Songer said.“Natural sugars, such as those we get from fruit and milk, are healthy,” she explained. “Added sugars—such as brown sugar, maple sugar, corn syrup, honey, malt syrup and molasses—aren’t good for us. They contribute significantly to obesity. Information on the new food labels will help you keep your intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories. For example, you can have 200 calories of added sugars if you consume 2,000 calories in a day.”
- Vitamin A and C Dropped - Nutrients no longer must include Vitamin A and C since deficiencies of those vitamins are rare today. Songer explained that scientific evidence led the FDA to require Vitamin D and potassium values on labels because Americans tend to be low in these. The Percent Daily Value (%DV) for nutrients is also new, based on updated figures provided by the FDA.
- Daily Diet in Context - If you read the fine print, you’ll also notice a footnote explaining the meaning of %DV at the bottom of food labels. According to Songer, the %DV helps you understand the food’s nutritional value in the context of a total daily diet, which is based on 2,000 calories a day.
Everyone has different calorie needs, Songer said. Although 2,000 calories a day is an average, some people need more or less.
“I’m not sure if food labels will ever be perfect, but if you can understand how to read a label and interpret it, the new labels can help you know what’s good for you and your personal needs,” she said.